By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Afghanistan is now the U.S. military's top priority for assigning troops, equipment and other resources, the nation's most senior military officer said for the first time yesterday.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, designated the war in Afghanistan as the military's "main effort" -- or most important combat mission -- while acknowledging that fighting "isn't over" in Iraq, where 136,000 U.S. troops still serve.
"The main effort in our strategic focus from a military perspective must now shift to Afghanistan," Mullen said at a Pentagon news conference after recent trips to both countries.
Mullen is expected to issue a written guidance soon to the service chiefs and key commanders to formalize the change, under which military systems for planning and resources will be prioritized for Afghanistan, a Pentagon official said.
Under U.S. military doctrine, commanders seek to put focus on a "main effort" or attack at a decisive time and place. In putting an unequivocal precedence on Afghanistan, Mullen reversed the stance he articulated in December 2007 under the Bush administration, when he referred pointedly to the allocation of military resources: "In Afghanistan, we do what we can," he said then. "In Iraq, we do what we must."
Mullen alluded to the 2007 comment yesterday when he said Afghanistan "isn't about can-do anymore. This is about must-do, and we must do more over at least the next two years."
In Iraq, Mullen acknowledged that violence has increased significantly in recent weeks, but he said that was unlikely to affect the U.S. plan to withdraw all combat troops from that country by August 2010.
In contrast, he said advances by increasingly well-organized Taliban extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan pose a mounting threat to the United States. "I'm gravely concerned about the progress they have made in the south [of Afghanistan] and inside Pakistan. The consequences of their success directly threaten our national interests in the region and our safety here at home."
U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have repeatedly complained of a dearth of forces, although the Obama administration -- like its predecessor -- has steadily increased the number of U.S. troops, which stands at 45,000.
Asked about the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, Mullen said that the United States had made significant monetary investments that have improved those safeguards "fairly dramatically" during the past three years, and that he was "comfortable" with the Pakistani military's capability to handle that challenge.
Mullen said it was too early to tell whether recent Pakistani military operations in western tribal areas will be sustained and, therefore, effective in the long run in curtailing the Taliban insurgency. "I've certainly seen over the last couple of years bursts of fighting and engagement, and . . . they're not sustained," Mullen said, stressing that combing operations by combat forces must be backed up by economic reconstruction and policing efforts to hold the territory.
He said the U.S. government is working to streamline systems for providing Pakistan with key counterinsurgency resources, which officials said will include helicopters for attack, transport and medical evacuation; intelligence gear; and equipment to counter roadside bombs.